The 2005 National Governors Association “Compact on High School Graduation Rates” put a stake in the ground on how public schools would be measured in terms of producing high school graduates. Michigan was one of the first states to adopt the compact’s cohort method of measuring graduation and dropout rates.
Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information produced the first four-year cohort-based graduation report for the class of 2007, finding the statewide dropout rate to be 15.9 percent by actual head count. This meant that out of the 140,044 students enrolled as freshmen in 2004, 21,185 were reported as having dropped out. In 2008, the number decreased to 14.2 percent, or 20,594. Both annual reports provide a breakout of graduation and dropout measures for each of Michigan’s 552 public school districts and 232 public school academies.
These reports marked a heightened level of accountability for public school administrators and gave policy makers the means of identifying those schools producing the fewest graduates and the most dropouts. For a number of reasons, students like Kyle do not show up in state reports until it’s too late. Annual graduation reports serve a broader accountability purpose by identifying dropouts in aggregate and after the fact. These reports lack the granularity needed by district or building-level administrators to tackle their own dropout problems.
The National High School Center published a report in 2007, “Approaches to Dropout Prevention,” that provided a list of early warning signs–poor attendance, not enough credits earned, no progression in grades–that school leaders can use to identify students most at risk of dropping out. These types of indicators exist for every grade, yet Michigan’s state-level data system currently does not collect these indicators, and it only reports off-track students after four years of high school.
Last year, Michigan made a priority of getting actionable dropout prevention data in administrators’ hands by funding the Regional Data Initiatives grant program, allocating $11.5 million in EETT funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The project expands eight existing regional data systems to cover all 57 intermediate school districts. So far, 97.5 percent of public school districts and 45 percent of public school academies have signed up, so now providing dropout prevention reports for every school is well within reach.
As a matter of public policy, many proponents of dropout prevention see the new state law increasing the legal dropout age as a good first step in lowering dropout rates. In December 2009, the Michigan Legislature, challenged to address the state’s unacceptably high dropout numbers, increased the legal dropout age from 16 to 18 as part of a larger package of education reform legislation passed to strengthen the state’s Race to the Top (RTTT) application. Under the new law, parents will have to formally approve of a student’s decision to leave school without graduating before age 18.
Increasing the dropout age was a clear message to at-risk students and their parents, so the Michigan Legislature sent a similar message to our state’s “dropout factories” by including in the RTTT legislation provisions for a state takeover of the bottom five percent of struggling schools. This legislation may put these schools under state control and provides limited choices: use one of the state-mandated options to improve, or close. These options range from replacing administrators and staff, to hiring an outside management company, to reorganizing as a public school academy (i.e., charter school).
In addition to raising the dropout age and taking over failing schools, Michigan is experimenting with cyber school provisions that provide schools with alternative routes and flexible options for re-engaging students who have fallen behind. Superintendent Flanagan has extended “seat time” alternative education waivers to 21 programs across the state, in many cases allowing students to bypass the current, two-course limit on online, self-scheduled courses and receive up to 100 percent of their instruction online. As of September 2009, 1,450 students were enrolled in seat time waivers, and program administrators say about 80 percent of these students were either dropouts or at risk of dropping out.
To lower the dropout rate, more has to be done at the school level to provide the appropriate support for at-risk students. While school administrators might have an idea which students are at risk of dropping out, they often lack the definite indicators warranting intervention. Hence the need for adding early warning signs reporting to local data systems.
Providing data is only part of the solution. Many administrators and teachers have not been properly prepared to understand what the data are saying and to use them in helping at-risk students avoid dropping out. The 2007 “Approaches to Dropout Prevention” report suggests schools that are successful in reversing high dropout rates focus on factors that go beyond what one would consider traditional dropout prevention strategies and actions, such as extending learning time, providing challenging learning opportunities, aligning performance standards with college and career readiness, and focusing on transitions from high school to college or a career.
To help Michigan schools adopt the most promising dropout prevention strategies, MDE partnered with the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and Oakland County Schools to bring 1,096 middle and high school administrators into an online professional learning community for developing and sustaining best practices.